It’s been interesting to read and watch all the negativity and vitriol hurled against the final Fox X-Men film, Dark Phoenix. Yes, technically there is still the unreleased film The New Mutants, but from all accounts that upcoming film (if it is ever released) does not appear to be connected to the Fox X-Men films and it will be radically retooled. Who knows, now that Disney owns the film property, The New Mutants could be retconned to be part of its own Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), though that is a risk.
Getting back to Dark Phoenix, the reaction to the conclusion of the X-Men film saga has been harsh, perhaps a bit too harsh. It’s not that bad and has its moments, though it is flawed. It certainly isn’t a Logan or X-Men: Days of Future Past, just a missed opportunity, which is sad.
Dark Phoenix takes place in 1992 where the X-Men are revered celebrities with their heroics, thanks to the efforts of their leader Charles Xavier'(James McAvoy) to show the world that mutants shouldn’t be feared. By this time, he even has a direct phone line with the U.S. president. Xavier gets called for help with stranded astronauts onboard an orbiting space shuttle. The X-Men are dispatched to go rescue them with the team consisting of field leader Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult) Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and Nightcrawler (Kodie Smit-McPhee). They are able to save the astronauts from a coming solar flare, but Jean Grey is blasted by the flare which turns out to be the elemental Phoenix Force. This transforms her, increasing her telepathic and telekinetic powers beyond measure and leaves her struggling to control them and her fragile emotions. Her plight draws conflict not just from outside forces wishing to either kill her or control her but by the X-Men themselves, who are divided on how to deal with Jean Grey.
The film is very loosely based on the monumental “Dark Phoenix Saga” from the Marvel Comics X-Men books, which is widely considered to be one of the greatest comic book stories of all time. The previous attempt to bring this story to film, X-Men: The Last Stand, was a poor one and the latest attempt is only marginally better. Unlike Last Stand, Dark Phoenix is solely centered on the Jean Grey’s story, but the execution feels pedestrian many times. By itself, Dark Phoenix is competent but lacks the true epic scale of the comic book story and needed a better visual and filmmaking punch from a more competent and experienced director.
For some bizarre reason 20th Century Fox deemed it OK to give this film about the beloved story to a first-time director (Simon Kinberg) who just lacks the skill to give us the epic story this X-Men film saga deserves. By the time the film series was nearing its conclusion, the upper management of Fox must have known they were to be sold off to Disney, so if they wanted to conclude their successful film series why hand this finale off to Kinberg? Yes, he wrote and produced the previous films and has clout, but allowing someone who never directed anything at all to handle Dark Phoenix was a risky move that blew up in their faces. The direction is very workman-like and too safe. Many pivotal and emotional scenes lack the flair shown in other X-Men films and shockingly the film is shot like a low-budget or TV film. To be fair, the third act of Dark Phoenix was re-shot because it was too similar to another recent film (probably Captain Marvel) and its done quite well, but it will disappoint comic book fans looking for the original story’s spectacular space showdown. Still, the confrontation between the X-Men, Jean Grey and other forces was exciting and probably the best part of the film.
There are many good elements in the film, aside from the final act. Chief among them is the acting by Sophie Turner in the pivotal role of Jean Grey. Her character is the core of the film and it was vital that we be invested in her struggle and we are. In spite of some actions that she carries out in the film, it is hard to see Grey as evil and she comes off as sympathetic. Most of the other actors bring their A-game to the role including McAvoy, whose Xavier must come to grips of mistakes he’s made with his disciple Grey when she was younger and how he let fame get to him. Other standouts are Hoult as Beast, who takes a less understanding view with Grey, Michael Fassbender who is always great as the conflicted Magneto, and Smit-McPhee, who while not getting much screen time manages to make his Nightcrawler a standout, sympathetic superhero with awesome teleporting powers.
Other actors don’t fare as well. The worst of which is Lawrence, who is so checked out with playing the shapeshifting Mystique that you could tell she was counting down how much longer she had to play the role. Another one is Jessica Chastain, who portrays Vuk, a mysterious alien that is invested in the Dark Phoenix. Unfortunately the subplot involving Vuk and the aliens she leads is very uninspired and dull. Chastain basically sleepwalks through her lines and has zero charisma. While Magneto is one of the best supervillains on film, Vuk is clearly one of the worst. The problem here is that the alien angle is a major story point and a detriment to the film.
To be clear, Dark Phoenix is not the disaster that some hyperbolic and offended critics are claiming it to be. Seriously, this is not the worse Fox X-Men film. That dishonor still belongs to X-Men Origins: Wolverine. However, the Dark Phoenix story needs to be properly told or not at all. Kinberg probably should have chosen a more low-scale story to tell which would have been suited to his limited skill set. It is easy to tell that Fox and many of those involved were burned out of the X-Men and ready to hand the film rights to Disney. It’s a shame really, the X-Men films had a suitable conclusion with Logan and the Fox X-Men film series deserved a better send off than Dark Phoenix. But the film is OK to watch if you keep in mind the film won’t properly re-tell the classic comic book story. But at least we get to see some terrific actors play their iconic roles one last time and see the film series come to a conclusion.